Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte

Elizabeth Bonaparte

Triple portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1804
Born (1785-02-06)February 6, 1785
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died April 4, 1879(1879-04-04) (aged 94)
Spouse Jérôme Bonaparte
Issue Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte
Father William Patterson

Elizabeth Patterson "Betsy" Bonaparte (February 6, 1785 – April 4, 1879) was an American socialite. She was the daughter of a Baltimore, Maryland merchant, and the first wife of Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon's youngest brother.


Elizabeth's father, William Patterson, had been born in Ireland and came to North America prior to the American Revolutionary War. He was a Presbyterian[1] from Donegal, and the wealthiest man in Maryland after Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. Elizabeth's brother, Robert, married Carroll's granddaughter, Marianne Caton.


Elizabeth and Jérôme Bonaparte were married on December 24, 1803, at a ceremony presided over by John Carroll, the Archbishop of Baltimore. Betsy quickly became known for her risqué taste in fashion, starting with her wedding dress.

Jérôme's brother Napoleon ordered his brother back to France and demanded that the marriage be annulled. Jérôme ignored Napoleon's initial demand that he return to France without his wife.[2]

European visits

In the fall of 1804, Jérôme and a pregnant Betsy attempted to travel to France in time for his brother's coronation, but a number of false starts delayed them. When they finally arrived, Elizabeth was denied permission to set foot in continental Europe by order of Napoleon. Jérôme traveled to Italy in an attempt to reason with his brother, writing to his wife, "My dearest Elsa, I will do everything that must be done," but she would never see him again, except for a brief eye-to-eye contact in 1817. After remaining in limbo, unable to disembark in either France or the Netherlands, she gave birth to a son on July 7, 1805, at 95 Camberwell Grove, Camberwell, London. Jérôme gave in to his brother, returned to the French Navy, and married the German princess Catharina of Württemberg on August 22, 1807 in the Royal Palace at Fontainebleau, France. (His marriage to "dearest Elsa" had not yet been dissolved.)

Betsy returned to Baltimore with her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, called "Bo" by his mother, and lived with her father while she continued to flaunt her royal connection. After the Battle of Waterloo, she returned to Europe where she was well received in the most exclusive circles and much admired for her beauty and wit.

Divorce and last years

In 1815, by special Act of the Legislature of Maryland, she secured a divorce. Her last years were spent in Baltimore in the management of her estate, the value of which she increased to $1.5 million. Betsy died in the midst of a court battle over whether the state of Maryland could tax her out-of-state bonds.[3] The case reached the Supreme Court (Bonaparte v. Tax Court, 104 U.S. 592). The Court decided in favor of Maryland.[3]

In 1861, Elizabeth Patterson filed an inheritance claim in the Tribunal of First Instance at Paris after her former husband, Prince Jerome, died on 24 June 1860.[4] On February 15, 1861, the Tribunal of the Seine ruled that, "demands of Madame Elizabeth Patterson and her son, Jerome Bonaparte, are not admissible, and must be rejected."[5]

On April 4, 1879, Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson Bonaparte died in Baltimore. She was interred in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. Her tomb bears an epitaph, "After life's fitful fever she sleeps well."[6]


Elizabeth Patterson outlived her son Jérôme Napoléon Bonaparte by nine years. Her grandson Charles Joseph Bonaparte in 1905 became Roosevelt's Secretary of the Navy, and in 1906 — the U.S. Attorney General. Betsy's brother's widow, Marianne (Caton) Patterson, married Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, older brother of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Another brother, Edward Patterson, was the owner of Joppa Iron Works in Eastern Baltimore County, MD.

The story of Elizabeth and Jérôme's marriage and annulment is the basis for the 1908 play Glorious Betsy by Rida Johnson Young and the two film adaptations, Glorious Betsy (1928) and Hearts Divided (1936). She was portrayed by Dolores Costello in the former and by Marion Davies in the latter. The episode "Duty" of the Hornblower television series features Elizabeth and Jérôme trying to land in France and the diplomatic difficulties. A historical novel about her life, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien, was published in 2013.


  1. Philip W. Sergeant, Jerome Bonaparte: the Burlesque Napoleon. Brentano's, New York, 1906
  2. Macartney, Clarence E. N, and John G. Dorrance. The Bonapartes in America. Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co, 1939.
  3. 1 2 Maryland State Archives. 2007.
  4. The American Bonapartes. Details of the Legal Trial soon to come on concerning the American Bonapartes. From the London Times., The New York Times, January 30, 1861.
  5. The Bonaparte Family Suit, The New York Times, March 3, 1861.
  6. Christopher T. George. Defeated by Napoleon: Fame (Sort Of) But No Titles for the Bonapartes of Baltimore.

Further reading

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